As inflation squeezes middle-class Europe, anxiety about the future

Across Europe, people in the middle layer of the labor force – from office workers, civil servants and skilled laborers to low-level managers – are coping with a growing sense that they are being pushed to the margins like never before, as a combination of rising costs and stagnant wages erodes their purchasing power.

Prices for basic goods from gas to milk are rising sharply, outpacing pay rises linked to official rates of inflation. Families that once maintained pleasant lifestyles afforded by two incomes find the rise in costs – which have accelerated worldwide in the past year – has pushed them to the tipping point. Many Europeans are pinching pennies on food and everyday items, while cutting back on a range of extras, from movie tickets to vacations abroad.

More worrisome, a generation of European workers is grappling with a rising sense of injustice as they face the reality that they may be becoming worse, not better, off than their parents. Even holding classic middle-class professions with a university degree has become less of a guarantee against economic hardship. That, in turn, is igniting concerns of an even more uncertain future for their own children.

Yet these same forces are also widening the pool of middle-class Europeans who see themselves on the edge of impoverishment.

That concern boiled over to anger last week in Britain, when teachers closed the country’s schools for the first time in two decades to protest pay deals that are not keeping up with the soaring cost of living. Especially for those who were not lifted by the latest financial market bubble before it started to collapse last summer, there is fear that proposed pay rises of about 2.5 percent are too meager to absorb food and oil costs that have surged in Britain by about 7 percent and 20 percent, respectively, from a year ago.

Their rallying cry is the latest to echo across Europe. German workers in several industries last month waged a series of strikes to demand a greater piece of the economic pie after years of being asked to make do with stagnant wages.

In France, a range of professions from teachers to factory workers have taken to the streets to urge politicians to counter a decline in purchasing power. This month, thousands of European workers protested on the same theme in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, which currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency.

Bowing to public concern, some European governments are promising relief, though their powers to curb inflation or raise pay are limited. In France, where the erosion of purchasing power has overtaken unemployment as the No. 1 public concern, the administration of President Nicolas Sarkozy is, among other things, looking into alleged “abuses” of pricing by food merchants. Neighboring Germany is mulling lower social insurance taxes to offset higher prices.

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